The Howard Assembly Room has been one of Leeds’ most underrated music venues for the best part of a decade, but now it’s going to get its time in the sun…
The Howard Assembly Room first opened back in 1879, just a year after Leeds Grand Theatre next door. Its aim? To offer a musical alternative to the beer-soaked music halls across the city. 139 years later, that’s still their end game. And with a brand new £18 million redevelopment on the way, the Howard Assembly Room is preparing to share that original spirit with a new generation by creating a ‘world-class centre of music’ that will help locals enjoy music on many different levels.
This transformation has been a long time coming
This historic attraction is being brought into the modern day, but the Howard Assembly Room has been a stone-cold hit for decades. In its early days, it held concerts and cavalcades galore for the great and good of Leeds. But the city’s changing taste eventually took its toll and it was transformed into a cinema after a fire in the early 1900s. That was how it remained for most of the 20th century. A lifeline back to musical greatness came when it was renovated alongside Leeds Grand in 2005. By the time it reopened in 2009, it had been transformed into a 300-seat art space, with an eclectic programme of events that showcased everything from jazz to classical music and art installations, all curated by Opera North.
Many of the original Victorian details were lovingly restored during the refurb, including the barrel-vaulted roof, the stained-glass windows and the gothic motif decorations. Thanks to the range of beautiful music and events on offer, the Howard Assembly Room quickly achieved cult status with Leeds’ culture vultures. But behind the scenes, Opera North wanted more. As Projects Director Dominic Gray puts it, “It was always the plan that it would become a year-round venue, with its own front door, and its own bar and everything, but we ran out of money. It’s taken us 10 years to be in a position where we can afford it.”
Ambitious new plans will bring Howard Assembly Room into the 21st century
At long last, they’re ready for the final stage of the Howard Assembly Room’s rebirth, and the plans are nothing short of spectacular. The main space is where the majority of the money was spent last time, so this time they’re focusing on creating a world-class venue around it. Stepping out of Leeds Grand’s shadow, the Howard Assembly Room will get a brand new front entrance, box office, restaurant and bar, all joined together by a light and airy glass atrium which spans all six floors.
But the biggest changes are actually happening across the street. As David Collins, Director of External Affairs, explains, “We’ve got two large complexes opposite where we rehearse our operas, and on top of those there’s going to be another big space for the orchestra and the opera singers, all of which need to be completely soundproof. Next to that is our beautiful 70s office block. We’re going to be bringing it up to scratch, with solar panels on the roof to try and generate some of our own electricity, and an education hub on the ground floor.”
But what does all this mean? For starters, you can expect twice as many performances as part of a year-round programme of music, as the Orchestra of Opera North won’t be using it for rehearsals anymore. Right now, they monopolise the theatre for at least 100 days of the year, but when the redevelopment is complete, they’ll have their own custom-built rehearsal space where they can practice, which will free up the theatre for performances.
You’ll be able to eat, drink and learn all in one place
You’d be amazed at how many people have never even heard of Howard Assembly Room, but this redevelopment could change all that. “Currently, we’re a big arts operation that doesn’t really have any place for people to just wander in,” Collins explained. “We hope the bar and restaurant will be our front door, so if you’re just passing and you pop in for a coffee vicariously, you might learn a bit about Opera North and the Howard Assembly Room. It’s a nice place to come and be, really.” They’re using the bar and restaurant as a secret weapon, to tempt people in off the street and introduce them to the joy of music, in its many forms – and by doing so, they hope to transform the Howard Assembly Room from a hidden gem, into a prized attraction.
That’s just one part of their plan to get more people interested in music though. Opera North’s education department has been leading the charge to keep music in the curriculum for some time now. Their 30-person education team works with around 2,000 children a week, popping into primary schools across Leeds to get children to sing and play an instrument for the first time. Now, at their brand new education hub on New Briggate, they’re building a place where everyone can discover and practise their passion for music, with sprung floors, professional acoustics, teaching rooms and more.
There’s something magical about people of all ages being able to share their love of music all under one roof, which is why you’ll find Opera North’s education hub and rehearsal spaces in the same building. As Gray puts it, “By having that centre in the building, we’re hoping that we will have opportunities for a 12-year-old learning the violin to rub shoulders with a world-class violinist doing a gig in Howard Assembly Room, or a folk violinist doing a gig, or a violin player in the orchestra for Opera North. It’ll become more of a melting pot of people who are excited about music.”
They’re opening up the world of music to everyone
One of the biggest challenges for any music venue is making sure there’s enough variety, but you’d have to go a long way to find a programme as diverse as the one at Howard Assembly Room. In any given month, you can experience everything from jazz to folk and world music, alongside their staple classic music and opera offerings. They even stretch as far as spoken word poetry, film and theatre, so you’ll be well catered for, whatever your taste.
But what good is such a broad variety of music if you can’t afford a ticket? Thankfully, this is one cultural treat that won’t cost you the earth, most of their gigs are priced at between £10 and £20. “We’re not locking ourselves away making opera for the rich folk”, Gray told us. “It’s for everybody, all the time. A lot of people think it’s not for them and it’s exclusive or a bit of an ivory tower. Compared to a football match or whatever, our ticket prices are not expensive.”
There’s another crucial side of accessibility, in the most literal sense – a modern theatre has to have top-notch disabled access. You can already get to every inch of the building via wheelchair, but the revamped development will use the new glass atrium to connect every route together. That way, if you need special access, it’s all reachable from one spacious central hub.
It’s a big coup for Leeds (and an even bigger one for New Briggate)
The new-and-improved Howard Assembly Room is due to open in 2020, the end of a long journey. After 141 years, their mission to create a music venue for everyone in Leeds to enjoy will finally be finished, and they can begin a new chapter. With their rebirth comes the regeneration of New Briggate. The units below the Howard Assembly Room have stood empty for too long, but with the opening of their new restaurant and bar, they’ll kick-start the transformation of a street that, at present, doesn’t live up to the reputation of its cultural residents.Cover image credit: Enjoy Digital